Epilogue 3: Drifting in the Night
A Ranma ½ story
by D.B. Sommer
Disclaimer: Ranma ½ and its characters and settings belong to Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video.
All comments and criticisms appreciated. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Ukyou hated tubes.
She hated the long clear things through which a never-ending stream of fluid coursed. Life wasnít meant to be dependent on pieces of plastic embedded into the flesh. There was something horribly wrong with the very idea, but now, in a way, her life was dependent on them. Oh, how she hated them.
It was just like the electronic beeps. Those piercing little pulses that sounded like someone was stepping on a mouse over and over again, until one thought would go mad. That was what the designers of those machines were really up to, creating a high- tech version of the Chinese Water Torture.
Exactly the same thing. Who would want to come out of a coma if that was all there was to hear? If she had one of those designers before her, she probably would have beat the tar out of him with her spatula, if she had thought to bring that with her. Lord, how she despised those machines.
Ai had been hooked up to them since their return from the little Ďjauntí DíAmour inadvertently took them on when he used the fold generators the second time. It was nothing short of a miracle that Ai had not died on the trip back. Thankfully, the life support equipment on TWPOS did function properly. It was about the only thing that did.
After an arduous journey that seemed to last forever, they had at last returned to Japan. Ai was transported to a real hospital and looked over by true professionals. Curiously, Ukyouís original doubts about Bubbles proved to be unfounded. Upon examining Ai, the doctors all agreed that she had been given expert care and that the operation that had been performed on her had been the best work they had ever seen. When they asked Ukyou the identity of the doctor, her response of Ďshe just said her name was Bubblesí was met with disbelief. The doctors seemed convinced Ukyou was hiding the identity of the physician and would still occasionally try to grill her about who really performed it, as if she would make up an absurd story like that. That didnít seem to stop the physicians, who would inform Ukyou that ĎDr. Bubblesí had checked on Ai and said she was still in stable condition.
Shortly after arriving with Ai, one of the doctors contacted the rest of the Konjous and informed them of her condition. They quickly arrived at the hospital. The only one Ukyou recognized was Mariko, and that was only because she had attacked the school before. Once the family found out what Aiís condition was, and that Ukyou had been the one who had brought her in, they began to interrogate her. They had gotten no further than the first question before Ukyou broke down and began crying. Until that moment, she hadnít realized how much she blamed herself for what had happened to Ai. She knew she was responsible on so many levels. Ai had gone with her to China only to watch out for her, had gone to the mountain to protect her, had pushed her out of the path of Tessaiís blade to keep her from harm. At every turn she should have done something to turn Ai away, but she hadnít, and Ai had paid the price.
Once she calmed down enough to explain things to the Konjous, they refused to hold her responsible in the least. They even tried to convince Ukyou that she wasnít to blame, though they met with little success. The best they managed to do was to calm her down. Eventually she allowed herself to be led out of the room and left the family alone with Ai. Ukyou remained outside, sitting in a nearby lounge area, unable to stay very far away from the room. Despite the Konjousí kind words, Ukyou still couldnít help but blame herself for everything that had happened.
How long she waited in the lounge, Ukyou couldnít say; time had lost meaning in her world of sorrow. She was so lost in thought that she was unaware of the girl next to her until she spoke up.
"You couldnít have stopped her."
Ukyou looked up, startled by the intruding voice that cut through the silent recriminations. Mariko had left the hospital room to talk to her. Ai had mentioned her several times, and never in very glowing terms.
Mariko appeared to be around Ukyouís age, an inch or two taller, and with blonde hair that was cut about as short as Akaneís. She was wearing a pleasant looking white top and pleated skirt. There didnít appear to be all that much of a resemblance between the sisters. Their faces were completely different, especially in the eyes. Mariko didnít appear quite as fierce as Ai usually did. She was also missing the sort of confident airs Ai seemed to perpetually carry with her.
Ukyou realized she was staring at Mariko and snapped out of her careful examination. "Iím sorry, what did you say?"
"I said there was no way you could have stopped her from going with you." Mariko shook her head sadly. "Once Ai gets something set in her mind, thatís it. Nothing you can do will shake her out of it. You would have had to chain her to Tokyo Tower to leave her behind, and even then that might not have stopped her."
"I should have figured out something," Ukyou said as her head slumped mournfully.
"Then it would be her wailing at you being hurt, and Iíll let you know something, she cries a lot harder than you do." Mariko saw that the joke did nothing to lighten Ukyouís mood. She sat down in the plastic chair next to the chef. "Ai will be fine. Sheís a tough one, and I should know, Iíve had to live with the brat all of my life." It was then Mariko realized something. "We havenít been formerly introduced. Iím Mariko, Aiís sister." She bowed her head slightly.
Ukyou nodded her own. "Thatís what I thought. Sheís talked about you before."
"And probably not too favorably, I presume?"
Ukyou reluctantly nodded.
Mariko gave a curt smile. "Iím not surprised. We havenít exactly been too close for the last couple of years. More like rivals, actually." Mariko sounded wistful as she continued. "Itís all her fault, really. She just had to muscle in on my martial arts cheerleading squad. Only one hen can rule the roost, although in her case sheís almost as much cock as hen." Mariko laughed at her little joke.
"Ai is all woman!" Ukyou snapped, offended at the idea that someone could be as feminine as Ai and still be called that. Even with her preferences, that was absurd.
Mariko held up her hands in surrender. "Relax. I didnít mean to insult you. Iím just not like you and Ai. I only like guys."
"Iím not like that either!"
Mariko stared at her in surprise. "I though you and Ai were going out. I mean, she never said you were girlfriends outright, but from the way she talked, it sounded like it."
Ukyou began wavering slightly. She hadnít thought of being called something like that. She had always considered herself nothing more than a heterosexual, even if she did cross-dress. "Iím not that way, except when it comes to Ai, if that makes any sense."
"Not really," Mariko said after a moment of thought. "I guess Aiís got you so confused you donít know what to label yourself, is that it?"
Ukyouís shoulders slumped as she realized Mariko had hit closer to home than she probably realized. "I never really gave it much thought. I know I love her. I couldnít tell you when or how it happened, but it did. But Iím not the least bit attracted to any other women. I donít know what that makes me."
"Weird," Mariko supplied.
Ukyou felt the edges of her temper begin to fray. "Look, you! I am not weird and neither is Ai!"
Mariko shrugged her shoulders in response. "Sorry, but I think the whole concept of two girls getting it on is weird, even if my sister does it. Thatís my opinion, and Iím sticking to it." Mariko seemed to soften a bit as she finished. "Ai will be happy to know you arenít interested in any other girls, though. She can be really possessive and jealous."
"I know," Ukyou sighed, recalling various instances of those behaviors from Ai, especially early on. "Sheís gotten better though."
"Better at hiding it, most likely," Mariko seemed to soften further. "You really do love her, huh?"
Mariko seemed pleased that Ukyou would respond without the slightest hint of hesitation. "She loves you too. Sheís gone on about people before, but not like you. Never like she has about you." She watched with an amused grin as Ukyou blushed. That was all the proof she needed about Ukyouís sincerity. There were some other things she needed to ask, however.
"Ai does have some rather unusual problems you might not be aware of."
Ukyou shook her head. "Ai told me about them. Donít worry; Iím definitely not going to use her like that. Hell, if I had some of the jerks that did those things to her before…" Ukyou let the threat trail off, wishing she had her spatula with her, even if for no other reason than to feel its reassuring touch.
"All of them were punished in one way or the other," Mariko assured her. No matter what problems existed between the sisters, Mariko would never allow anyone to harm Ai like that again. Apparently she did not need to worry about Aiís current love interest either, in that respect. That was something of a relief. Even if Mariko didnít approve of such behaviors, at least Ai was happy, or would be once she regained consciousness.
"My parents rather liked you," Mariko informed her. "Donít worry about keeping the relationship a secret. They might not approve of Aiís lifestyle, but they accept that thatís the way she is, and wonít hold it against you."
"Ai said as much." Ukyou told her, once again catching Mariko slightly off guard. She hadnít realized her sister had been so open with Ukyou. Very surprising indeed.
Deciding she had scouted out Aiís new girlfriend sufficiently, Mariko got up and headed back to the room Ai was in. "Iím going to keep an eye on Ai. Youíre welcome to come and talk with us anytime you need to."
Ukyou nodded. "You seem pretty calm about all of this."
Mariko shrugged. "Like I said, I know my sister. This wonít keep her down for long."
Ukyou could only pray Mariko was right.
"Ukyou, you need to eat something."
Akane took a look, a real good look, at Ukyou. It was just as Ryouga had said, Ukyou had to have dropped close to twenty pounds in the month since Ai had fallen. It was twenty pounds that Ukyou could not afford to lose. It wasnít as though she had been heavy to begin with, and now she was beginning to look emaciated.
Now Akane understood why Ryouga had insisted she go down to the restaurant and see if she could help. Despite Akaneís doubts about being able to assist Ukyou, given her own state of mind, she decided to try. She probably would not have gone over, but Ryouga had proven so insistent that she had no choice but to relent. It was a good thing she had too. Ukyou was going to pieces.
Akane chided herself for not seeing the difference sooner, but with her attention focused on thoughts of Ranma, she wasnít aware of much else around her. In that, she and Ukyou were really no different: both were consumed with the thoughts of loved ones that lay beyond their grasp: one by choice, the other by injury. The only consolation Akane had was that Ranmaís life wasnít in any danger… that she knew of, anyway.
"I did eat something," Ukyou replied. "I had some okonomiyaki earlier." It wasnít exactly a lie. She had nibbled a little at it, but the truth was she had no appetite, and the food had tasted so bland. Nothing seemed to help her. Everything she had made lately seemed to lack taste. Even the dwindling number of customers that still came to Uk-Chanís agreed.
"Then you need to eat more." Akane tried to encourage her.
"Iím not hungry," Ukyou answered.
Akane wasnít one to give up. "Ai would want you to take care of yourself."
"Iím not going to starve to death!" Ukyou snapped, angry at hearing what she perceived as nagging. She was about to shout again until she noted the pain in Akaneís face. Carefully, she reconsidered her words. "I know youíre trying to help, but I donít need it. Iíll be fine."
Akane nodded. She understood the feeling all too well, that sometimes no one could help you when you were hurt, and you had to discover on your own what it would take to heal you. She started towards the door to Uk-Chanís. "If thereís anything you need, you know, someone to talk to, all you have to do is ask."
"Itís funny. Ryouga said the exact same thing," the chef commented.
Akane wasnít really surprised. One of the reasons she had made the offer was because others had made an identical one to her using those self-same words. A hand-me-down overture of assistance, she supposed. Having no idea of what to say beyond that, she continued to leave. Akane was almost out the door when Ukyou caught her attention once more.
"Akane, did we ever find out what happened to that big rock guy?" It took Ukyou a moment to remember the name of the depraved creature whose image would be forever burned into her mind. "Tessai?"
"No." Akane shook her head. "Iím pretty sure he was still in the mountain when it blew up." As Akane finished telling her that, she noticed Ukyouís eyes suddenly took on a distant cast.
"Sometimes I dream about him, screaming out in pain. Such pain… and blood. So much blood. It was everywhere, except on Ai. I never let it touch her. She already had enough blood on her." Her voice sounded as far off as her gaze, if not farther. "The screaming never seems to last long enough though. Why does it have to stop before Iím done?"
Akane could have sworn the blood suddenly froze in her veins. There was a difference between acting frightening, like Minami did sometimes, and just BEING frightening, like Ukyou was now.
"Are you feeling all right?" Akane managed to get out.
The intrusion of Akaneís voice snapped Ukyou out of her trance, the echoes of distant screams leaving her. "Yes. Of course."
Ukyou appeared all right, but Akane wasnít completely convinced. Still, she could think of nothing to say, or even how to say it if something came to her. She simply bid Ukyou farewell once again, leaving the chef alone in her sorrow.
Ukyou listened to the babble of students behind her. She might have appeared unaware of their words, and she was a good portion of the time, but every now and then she would tune back into the real world and find out what was going on.
Her studies were something of a joke. During the first few months she had tried to keep up with the homework, but she couldnít concentrate on the words in the texts or the numbers she wrote down in class. It all went in one ear and out the other, nothing staying inside. She knew it wasnít supposed to be that way. She knew she should be able to do better. Even if she wasnít the greatest student in the world, she had always been able to get better than passing grades, but not anymore. Like her skills in okonomiyaki when she first returned to Japan, her thought processes had deteriorated as well, or more properly put, her ability to focus her thought processes had been shot to hell.
The teachers had noticed it too. It had been explained to them that someone close to Ukyou was in a coma, and they had given her leeway for quite some time, but now she had approached the end of that slack and was warned that she had better improve her grades or it would be a summer full of extra sessions at the least, if she wasnít held back outright instead. However, she couldnít care less about that either.
The students whispered things behind her back too. It was really quite amazing, considering she had been behaving that way since the return from China. Several months had passed, and even with the influx of new twisted people in the area, she still seemed to garner an impressive amount of attention. She didnít care what others thought about her or her situation anyway.
Again and again her mind came back to that same person, that same problem: Ai. At first, everyone had been convinced she would come out of her coma in a matter of days. Then weeks. Then months. But lately, that feeling of certainty was felt in smaller and smaller quantities. Not for Ukyou, she knew Ai would eventually come out of it. No, it was her family that had Ukyou concerned. Part of it had to do with the doctors informing them that Aiís condition was deteriorating. Her heartbeat was getting weaker and there still had not been a hint of brain activity. She wasnít getting any better, just worse, and she could see how frightened the Konjous were when they had been told about it.
Ukyou wasnít going to give up though, no matter how it looked to others. She prayed every night for Aiís recovery, and she just knew her prayers would be answered. Ai wouldnít let her down. She had something to come back to, and she was probably the most persistent person Ukyou could think of. Yes, any day now she would come out of her coma and Ukyou would see that bright smiling face again, she just knew it.
"Mr.— ah, I mean Miss Kuonji."
Ukyou snapped out of her daydream to the sound of Miss Hinakoís voice. "Yes?"
"Thereís a phone call for you. You can take it down in the principalís office."
Ukyou felt her heart sink in dread. Something was wrong.
"How is she?!"
Mariko wiped her tears away as she saw Ukyou burst into the room. She had planned on catching the chef out in the hallway to soften the blow, but had assumed it would take Ukyou at least another ten minutes before she would make it to the hospital from the school. It had been her idea to contact Ukyou, feeling the chef had a right to know. Mariko was the only one left with anything resembling cognizant thought, and just barely at that. It was hardly a surprise, considering what had happened overnight.
"Sheís all right… for now."
Ukyou stared at Aiís form, buried beneath an even larger mountain of tubes and machines. Life support, they called it. Providing life for those that couldnít cut it on their own. Not even really helping it along, more like replacing it altogether.
"It happened last night. They almost failed to bring her back in time."
Ai was supposed to get better, not worse.
"They said she needs the equipment. They donít know for how long."
It wasnít supposed to be this way.
"They said there isnít much hope."
Ukyou couldnít take it anymore. She hit the floor, unconscious.
It was only several hours later that the doctor allowed her to go. They were used to people fainting when such traumatizing information was revealed. What they had not been used to were said people waking up from the fainting spell and trashing a room with a huge spatula in grief. Once Ukyou had recovered from her sorrow she left the hospital, alone in her thoughts once again. Her pain had threatened to overwhelm her, but just as she had been about to shatter the door to her room and hunt down other things to smash, she had at last remembered something Ai had said in the mountain. That knowledge served to calm her down.
It was true that Ai had taken a turn for the worse, but it didnít matter. Ukyouís crisis of faith had passed with the knowledge that Ai would be okay. She knew it because Ai had said so. It was odd how she had forgotten what Ai had said in the mountain, but there were things about that place that seemed more dreamlike than real, so perhaps she could be forgiven for her lapse of memory.
Secure in the understanding that Ai would be all right in the long run, Ukyou returned to her home, if not in high spirits, at least in better ones than she had been.
Crepe Suzette was not a happy French Combat Cuisine Specialist.
It wasnít because of business; that was booming. It wasnít because of her combat skills; they were better than ever. It wasnít because of her looks; she was more beautiful than anyone else around.
No. It was because the stick by which she had measured herself had been cut in half.
How peculiar it was that she could not stand someone that had become so instrumental in her life. It had been Ukyouís fault, really. There wouldnít have been any problems if she had not deliberately led Suzette on with her man-like ways. She had seen the sly looks Ukyou had given her when they were still in school together. At first, Suzette had been flattered that at last she had met someone who acted like a gentleman, and he wasnít even French. However, there was the bitter pill she had to swallow upon discovering Ukyouís true nature. Oh, how the horrid girl had tried to twist Suzette into a pervert like the okonomiyaki chef was herself. And to believe she had almost been tricked into giving her heart to a girl, of all things. That was unforgivable.
The glorious days of teaching Kuonji her lesson at every opportunity had drawn to a close. With her equally twisted girlfriend (who was not as pretty as Suzette, which was why she was certain Ukyou still secretly pined for her) on deathís door, her rival had become nothing more than a shadow of her former self. Even the French girl was not so cold-hearted that she could not sympathize with Ukyou, no matter how twisted she was. Playing with the take-out girl, Kaori Daikokuji, was no fun. The desire to one up the rich, conceited snob simply wasnít there, at least not the way it was when dueling with Ukyou. It just wasnít personal enough.
Ukyouís business was a joke now. Almost no one went to Uk-Chanís anymore. That meant an increase in Suzetteís own business, but it was tainted fruit. They were not coming so much because she was superior (which she was) but because the competition was now a joke. She wanted— no, needed— the others to acknowledge her as superior in a fair fight, not one in which her opponent was crippled.
No matter how she tried, Ukyou would not snap out of her doldrums. Blaring Jazz music in the restaurant, calling Ukyou a pervert, insulting okonomiyaki, none of it did any good. Ukyou would just look at her with a hollow gaze and say, ĎIím just not in the mood.í How could Suzette counter that? To kick an opponent that was down, one that she had not put there herself, was beneath her. She needed Ukyou back on top of her game so she could knock the heartstring-puller off of her perch.
Still, there was one mild form of amusement she could distract herself with, a way to avenge herself upon an annoying little pest. For three days the cutesy little thing had come by and stolen pastries off of Suzetteís trays just as she was about to serve people. That she would just whiz by and grab one of HER pastries was an insult. That she would do it three days in a row, marked her for vengeance most foul.
When Suzette had tried to bring her down on the third day, the little kawaii piece of dung had moved too quickly. The French chef had more than enough combat experience to know that the girlís speed was close to unbeatable. That left two alternatives to gain vengeance. One was to buy an Acme Rocket Sled and try to run the thief down that way, but Suzette had heard stories about people having a tendency to slam into rock walls at speeds in excess of 160 miles an hour when using it. That was a little too risky, so she opted for the much safer, and more appropriate alternative.
Suzette checked her watch. The little speed freak would zip past at any moment. She held out a tray of baguettes, inviting them to be taken.
She didnít have long to wait, as a young girl in a frilly pink dress and roller skates practically flew past, grabbing onto one of the baguettes and shouting out, ĎMichelleí as she continued onward.
"Ah," Suzette sighed, "It is so comforting to hear the sounds of…"
"…Baguette Bombs in the air." It didnít matter that the little girl had good enough taste to give the stolen items French names. Thieves needed to be punished.
She watched with an amused air as Azusa Shiratori wobbled past on her skates, charred almost beyond recognition. As satisfying as dispatching her had been, still Suzette felt no real thrill, not like she did when upstaging Ukyou.
It was while she was sweeping the open-air portion of her bistro that Ukyou came by, looking even more wretched than usual. Once again Suzette tried her best to get a rise out of her.
"You look like a skeleton. Eat a croissant and put on some weight, you scarecrow."
Ukyou just gave her a sad nod. "Suzette, Iím not in the mood."
The blonde chef began to wonder if someone had substituted the real Ukyou with a robot from the way she kept saying the same thing repeatedly. Suzette sighed, until Ukyou stopped in front of her store and gave out a low gasp. Finally, the cycle was broken. Suzette rushed over to see what had happened. In Ukyouís hands was a note that had been posted in the door. Suzette tried looking over Ukyouís shoulder, but still couldnít make out the words.
"What does it say?" she finally asked.
Ukyou looked even more pathetic than usual as she turned to answer Suzette. "The bankís foreclosing on my restaurant."
Suzette recoiled in horror. "Pay them off, you silly, little fool!"
Ukyou shook her head. "Business hasnít been that good. Iíve barely made any money since I returned from China."
"If you had kept your regular hours, like you should have done, you wouldnít have this problem."
"I had to see Ai!" Ukyou protested, knowing that not opening the restaurant regularly had only delayed the inevitable. The number of customers had dipped too low to make Uk-Chanís profitable. Her cooking was mostly to blame there. Even if she had stayed, the food would still have tasted terrible.
"It says Iíve got until the end of the week before a representative finalizes things. Maybe the Tendos will put me up for a while after that." She barely gave Ryouga a passing thought. He had made enough money in one wrestling match to cover living expenses for a year, if not longer. He could afford to live on his own. She was also too proud to accept charity from him. At least she still had that.
Suzette said nothing as she returned to her own restaurant. Something had to be done. Ukyou could not be allowed to leave. Not like that anyway.
A week passed, and Ukyou sat in the silence of Uk-Chanís, waiting for the bankís representative to arrive. It was odd, how everything was at last coming to a close. Okonomiyaki and Ranma had been her life. Shampoo and Ryougaís presence had somehow diverted her attention from Ranma, allowing her to come to a peaceful resolution concerning him. Now all that had been left was the okonomiyaki, until it too was supplanted by Ai. Now she might lose her too, just as she was about to lose the restaurant, and through that her okonomiyaki. No. Ai had to survive. It just might take time. All she had to do was wait. No matter how long it took, she would wait.
The Tendos had agreed to allow Ukyou to stay with them for a while, at least until Ai recovered. After that she would deal with life as it was dealt to her. With Kasumi, Shampoo, and the Saotomes gone, there was more than enough room for her to stay. She had agreed to help out around the house in return, and could pick up at least a part-time job to pay something resembling actual rent, something the Tendos were a little uncomfortable with since no one else had ever paid them anything for staying there. Even Nabiki felt awkward; paying rent meant fleecing Ukyou for money was going to be a lot less justifiable.
She had all of her possessions boxed up and ready to go. All that remained was for the bank representative to arrive and have her sign some papers to help ease the final transfer of ownership. So Ukyou waited.
It was nearly four oí clock when she at last resorted to calling the bank to see what the hold up was. The man that answered listened carefully to her and looked up the records to see why there was a delay. The answer proved to be quite surprising. Apparently someone had made anonymous mortgage payments for the next seven months. No amount of begging would pry the identity of the donor from the man, who insisted he didnít know who it was.
That left Ukyou in an awkward position. She could accuse Ryouga of doing it, he was the only one she knew who had enough money, and the inclination, to help her, but an anonymous donation seemed a little too shifty for him. Neither he nor Kyoko would likely have thought to hide their identities at the bank. She loathed being indebted to anyone, and was not going to compromise herself for her mysterious benefactor, but she found it difficult to refuse her seeming good fortune. She didnít want to give up her restaurant. It might have been a distant second when it came to Ai, but it was still there. Now that she had an opportunity to keep it, well, she would do it. However, when she found out whoever helped her out, she would repay them every cent they were owed, with interest.
It was as she was counting her good fortune, while still trying to figure out the identity of her benefactor, that Suzette burst through the door with a party hat on her head and a whistle in her mouth. She blew on the whistle a few times before handing Ukyou a wrapped gift. "I am glad I caught you in time, you silly okonomiyaki person. I feared they had thrown you out before I had a chance to rub… I mean say goodbye. Ah, to be free of your baneful existence at last. I can think of no greater gift to give me. Thus, I give you a going away present of my own. By the way, do you know how much they are offering for the property? The idea that Jazz music would have a chance to echo off of these walls pleases me to no end. Hahaha—"
"Iím not going anywhere. The mortgage has been paid off for a little while. Iím sticking around." Ukyou watched as the delighted look Suzette had on disappeared. "Your hat just wilted," Ukyou pointed out.
Suzette appeared as though she were going to burst out crying. "You mean-spirited, perverted scum! You have led me on once again. I should have known better than to trust an okonomiyaki chef."
Ukyou tried to explain the situation, but Suzette would listen to nothing as she covered her ears and rushed out of Uk-Chanís, cursing Ukyouís name the entire time. Ukyou just shook her head sadly, then realized the French chef had left the going away present behind. Her first impulse was to return it, but that would lead to another confrontation with the irate blonde and possibly a fight, one Ukyou would not win. Instead she sat down and decided to see what Suzette had gotten her.
She ripped open the wrapping paper, only to see a large pastry in the bottom of the box with the words ĎOkonomiyaki Sucksí on it. For the first time in months, Ukyou had to suppress the urge to run outside and attack Suzette. Even at what appeared to be the end of their rivalry, she still had tried to have the last laugh.
What a jackass.
Ukyou felt afraid. Very afraid. She had been summoned to the hospital by the Konjous, specifically Mariko. Aiís sister hadnít been specific as to why she had requested Ukyouís presence, but there was something in her voice that had scared the hell out of Ukyou. In the past, when she spoke to Ukyou, always there was an underlying feeling of hope that the two shared, as though they drew strength from one another, because each knew Ai would eventually be okay and recover. However, Marikoís voice no longer echoed that feeling. No, there hadnít been much of anything in it.
And now Ukyou found herself running at a breakneck pace to reach the hospital. Something was wrong. Maybe Ai was de…
NO! She would not allow herself to think such thoughts. Ai was all right. She had said she would be, and Ukyou believed her. She wouldnít lie to Ukyou. Maybe to someone else, but not to her Ďsweet chef.í There had to be some other reason for the call. Maybe it had to do with her relationship with Ai. Maybe that was it. Something the parents wanted to talk to her about, and for some odd reason they wanted it to be at the hospital.
Even Ukyou couldnít convince herself of that. She hurried onward, praying that her instincts were wrong the entire time. She arrived at the hospital and rushed to Aiís room, where the wonderful sound of Aiís EKG machine was giving off its beeps. How could she have ever loathed that sound?
Aiís mother and father, Mariko, and two doctors were already in the room, all looking solemn. Everyone gave Ukyou a remorseful look, especially Mariko. She looked to her parents, who gave a silent nod of approval. Mariko acknowledged it and moved to Ukyouís side.
"Whatís going on?" She could tell by the look in Marikoís eyes it was bad. Very bad.
Marikoís voice wavered slightly. "Ukyou. We called you here to let you know weíve come to a decision."
Ukyou willed Mariko to remain silent, to not say anything more. If she didnít say anything else, it would still be all right.
Mariko continued. "We thought it was only right that you be here too, since this involves you as well. Itís been four months since Ai went," Mariko found her voice wavering, but somehow continued. "On life support. In that time she hasnít shown any sign of reviving. Theyíve tried to wean her off of it, but it never seems to do any good. Absolutely nothing. And there hasnít been any brain activity either. W… weíre going to terminate the life support."
In an instant Ukyou grabbed Mariko by her shirt and punched her squarely in the jaw, sending her flying into a wall. A small trickle of blood dribbled down from a cut in her lip as she returned to her feet. "Youíre under a lot of stress. Iíll forgive you for that."
Ukyou couldnít hear those words. The ones spoken before were all that was in her mind. "You canít do that! Sheíll come back! She promised! She told me so! We have to leave her on it!"
Warily, Mariko approached her, ready for another attack. "Ukyou, we canít. We probably shouldnít have done it in the first place, but none of us wanted to give up hope. We all thought sheíd get better, but she hasnít."
"THATíS NOT AN EXCUSE!!!"
"WEíRE NOT LOOKING FOR EXCUSES!!!" Mariko shot back, her nerves breaking at last. She began crying, trying to control herself and continue explaining, no matter how much it hurt. "Ai… Ai always said that if something happened to her, she didnít want to be kept on life support. She thought it was wrong, and that if the body had given up on life, that was it. The end. She always said that! She used to say I was crazy for not agreeing with her! Hell, I want to live as long as I can, but she didnít call that living. She thought it was just a way of keeping a dead thing alive. She said she never wanted something like that, and that if she had let go, so should we!
"I want to keep her alive too! Donít you think I want to?! But it isnít doing any good, and as much as it goes against everything I believe in, we have to respect Aiís wishes as well! We have to do it for her!"
Ukyou legs gave out on her as she began wailing. Mariko barely caught her before she fell to the floor. No one moved as Ukyou continued crying for minutes on end.
For a moment, Aiís mother almost said that they should leave the machines on, but a look from her husband firmed her original resolve. Everything was as Mariko said. They had been wrong in leaving Ai on it for so long, but she was her mother. How could she give up so easily on her daughter? No. It had taken months, but she was as ready as she was ever going to be to let go of her child.
Ukyou managed to compose herself enough to stand on her own. "C… can I stand by her for a few minutes?"
Aiís parents nodded in understanding. Ukyou moved to Aiís side, still weeping, though not as loudly. She bent low to Aiís face, and began speaking quietly. "Listen to me. This is w… where you have to wake up and m… make everything okay. I remember what you said in the mountain, and you wouldnít lie to me, would you? So wake up, b… b… because this is your last chance." She picked up a limp hand and gently kissed the back of it.
"Damn it, Ai. Please. I need you, and you need me. I donít want to lose you like I lost everything else. Please."
"Please." It was nothing more than the faintest of whispers.
And still nothing.
Ukyou fell to her knees and began crying once more. She knew she was there a while before a pair of hands gently picked her up. She was only dimly aware of Mariko embracing her, as though she was a mother and Ukyou was her child.
Barely, Ukyou heard the words, "Do it." She couldnít be certain who said it, other than that it wasnít Mariko.
Ukyou forced herself to watch as the life support machines were turned off, one by one. In spite of how much it hurt, she knew deep down inside she would never forgive herself if she didnít say goodbye. Even if it meant the tears would rain down forever.
Ukyou listened to the heart monitor, that sound she had hated above all other things when Ai was first moved into the hospital, the only sound she wanted to hear now. For when it at last stopped, it would be the end.
Slowly the time between the beeps grew longer. She could almost feel Aiís own heart getting weaker and weaker with each beep.
Ukyou continued listening carefully.
It was odd, but the sounds didnít seem to be getting farther apart. Actually, they now sounded fairly regular.
Ukyou looked on in confusion as the two doctors stared at each other. After a few minutes, one of them began speaking.
"Well, that doesnít happen too often. Usually, if they donít respond to being weaned off the machine, itís over for them. Usually. Donít get your hopes up though, sheís still not out of danger," he warned everyone present, then looked to his partner. "How many does that make this year?"
"Three," the other answered, and then shrugged. "Go figure."
Ukyou heard Mariko snort, then chuckle. As Ukyou stared at her in disbelief, Mariko seemed to take even more delight and burst out in hysterical laughter.
Between the incessant giggles, Mariko barely got out, "Thatís typical of the ingrate. She made us go through all of that heart-rending anguish for no damn reason." She continued laughing hysterically.
Ukyou, though overjoyed with the situation, couldnít quite bring herself to laugh that loud. Instead she moved next to Ai and held her hand. "I knew you wouldnít let me down."
Only the sounds of the heart monitor responded to her.
Ukyou relaxed in a chair to talk to Ai, not that Ai had recovered and could hear her. She was still in a coma since being taken off life support nearly two months ago, but Ukyou wasnít as nearly concerned as she had been in the past. Three weeks ago the doctors informed her there was brain activity, the first instance of it since her stay in the hospital. It had lasted slightly over an hour before she lapsed back into her coma, but it was progress.
The day they had turned off the machines became something of a turning point for Ukyou. With renewed confidence she began putting her life back into some semblance of order. Her okonomiyaki skills returned, and although there was still a little something missing, the true essence of the flavor had returned. With the return of her cooking came the return of her customers. She did have to cut her prices for a couple of weeks to lure them back, but once they started returning, word spread quickly and most of the regulars began dining at her place once again. The volume of business was still well below the heyday when Shampoo-kun was working as a waiter, but she was able to turn a profit once again.
Likewise she was able to concentrate on her schoolwork, as well as putting on some of the weight she had lost. She didnít regain all of it, but there was now enough that people would no longer refer to her derisively as a Ďscarecrowí any longer. Yes, her life had done almost a complete turnaround. There was just one thing missing. Now Ukyou waited in the hospital a couple of hours every day for Aiís return. Somehow she now knew it would happen. She wasnít sure when, but she knew it would, and that was all that mattered.
Ukyou continued talking to Ai about how prices on flour had gone up yet again, all thanks to that freaky weather, when she caught a movement out of the corner of her eye. It had seemed to come from around Aiís hand, so Ukyou stopped talking and watched. For over two minutes no further movement came from there. She was about to write the whole thing off as a figment of her imagination when her eyes fell upon the EEG machine that monitored Aiís brainwaves. Her eyes widened as she saw what was perhaps the most joyous sight she had ever beheld; there was now a series of peaks and valleys where before it had been almost flat.
Gently, Ukyou held Aiís hand and began speaking Aiís name softly. She knew it was a foolish wish, the odds of Ai actually regaining consciousness at that particular moment were dismal, but still she tried. Five minutes passed, and Ukyou was ready to give up hope, when she felt Aiís fingers twitch ever so slightly. Ukyou couldnít contain herself as she began to cry, unable to stop and not really wanting to.
Ai felt as though she were waking from a long dream, as she tried opening her eyes. They were barely opened a crack before she shut them again; the light was far too bright. Slowly she became aware of someone crying next to her. Her throat felt raw and parched, and her first attempt at speech in nearly a year came out more as if someone were strangling a frog, but she finally, and painfully croaked out, "Ukyou, is that you?" She was rewarded with an even louder weeping. "You okay?" she managed to get out, concern over the tears cutting through the haze in her mind. Had the stone man hurt Ukyou too?
After a few moments, a tearful, "Yes," answered her. Ai felt relieved at that. Her efforts hadnít been in vain She tried opening her eyes again, forcing them to adjust to the light. Slowly, she became aware of the world around her. Everything had a white tint to it, making her aware that she was not in the mountain anymore, but that was all she could tell. "Where am I?" she asked as her eyes continued to focus.
"Youíre in Japan," Ukyou explained, still sobbing.
"Why are you crying?" Ai asked, still uncertain of the situation.
As overcome by emotion as she was, it took an effort to compose herself to answer. "Because I was afraid you wouldnít come back."
Ai managed a weak smile, at least she thought she did. "Told you… was only going to sleep… for a little while. Wouldnít… lie to you."
"I know," Ukyou said. "I know. No one else believed me when I told them, but I did. I always believed you." Ukyouís hand gently brushed Aiís cheek. "I love you."
As exhausted as Ai was, she managed a wider smile. "Really?"
"Really," Ukyou confirmed. "Iím sorry it took me so long to say it."
"It was worth the wait," Ai assured her, then felt a wave of exhaustion pass over her. "I need to get some more sleep."
Ukyou nodded in understanding. "Donít keep me waiting so long this time."
"I wonít," Ai promised. "I wonít." And she went back to sleep once again, this time embraced in sweet dreams of her okonomiyaki chef repeatedly whispering in her ear how much she loved her.
Ai sat up in her bed, frustrated. Rehabilitation was going far too slowly for her tastes. After nearly three months of long hours of physical exertion, she felt she should have been near peak physical condition, nearly year long coma or not, but that hadnít been the case at all. She still had difficulty with her back when she tried to do really hard exercises, although the pain that had been present when she first began her rehabilitation was almost gone. It was only when she tried difficult maneuvers that it would flare up, and the pain from those times wasnít getting any better.
The body itself was in pretty good shape, although she was fairly certain her breasts still sagged a little. She wasnít certain if she was more irritated by that or the back pain. It was wonderful that Ukyou had at last proclaimed her love, but she still wanted to look attractive. There was nothing wrong with wanting to look good for a loved one.
The door to Aiís room opened. "Well, speak of the devil and she shall appear."
"What was that?" Ukyou asked as she entered the room.
"Never mind." Ai was overjoyed at Ukyouís return. It was about the only bright spot in her life anymore. Having her family come by and hang around her was becoming increasingly monotonous. They could be a pleasant break in the boredom, but the way they kept acting like she would lapse back into her coma at any moment was grating on her nerves, and any time she and Mariko came into contact they would continuously snipe at each other. Essentially things were back to normal with her family as far as she was concerned. She loved them, but for all intents and purposes, had outgrown them. However, the opposite was true when it came to Ukyou. She could never get enough of her sweet chef.
Ukyou gave Ai a light kiss on the lips before sitting down in a nearby chair. "How are you doing?"
"Terrible," Ai said, making it appear as though she were about to cry. "The food stinks and Iím bored to death. Letís break me out of this place and go somewhere that doesnít smell of antiseptic."
Ukyou laughed. "Not until youíre better. Howís rehab going, by the way?"
Ai switched from her mock anguish to genuine disappointment. "Too slow. Iím nowhere near as in shape as I used to be, and," she paused, suddenly fearful of what to say next. "I canít do the things I used to do when I was into martial arts cheerleading. And it goes deeper than just being out of shape. I can do them a little bit, but my back always flares up. Iím not sure why, but I definitely donít like it."
Ukyou gave her as sympathetic look. "I hoped this wouldnít happen. Bubbles—"
"You really let someone named Bubbles operate on me?"
Ukyou gave an exasperated sigh. "Yes. Itís not like we had a whole lot of choices at the time. Anyway, she said that with all of the damage done to your back muscles and spine, she didnít think youíd be able to do martial arts cheerleading anymore. Actually, she thought you might never be able to walk again."
Ai looked at her in shock. "I wonít be able to do martial arts cheerleading again?"
Ukyou knew something like this was going to happen. That was why she hadnít told Ai sooner. She had hoped Bubbles was wrong, but it appeared the exotic dancer had been on the mark with her guess. "Would you really miss martial arts cheerleading?"
Ai considered that. "Yes. You know how competitive I am, and I was really good at it." She hesitated a moment, unused to being so open with someone. It made her feel so vulnerable, yet she was also glad that she could afford to feel that way with someone. "And it made me feel not so helpless."
"Donít worry," Ukyou said. "Iíll protect you."
Ai shook her head. "Iíd rather be protecting you."
Ukyou watched as Aiís depression grew greater. It occurred to her that there was something she could do to cheer Ai up. It was something she had debated long and hard about, and wasnít sure if she was ready for, but then she didnít know if she would ever really be Ďreadyí for it.
"Umm, Ai. Thereís something Iíve been meaning to ask you."
Ukyou subconsciously began playing around with her hands. "Now if you donít want to do it, Iíd understand. I donít want to rush you, or if you donít like the idea, thatís okay too. And if—"
"Youíre starting to sound like Ryouga."
Ukyou recoiled at that. If that was the case, it was definitely time to get to the point. "Since Ryouga moved out and became a pro wrestler, Iíve got some extra space at my home, and it gets real lonely without anyone around. So I was wondering if maybe youíd like to move in with me."
Aiís first reaction was to stare off into space, at least until the whole reality of the situation was finally processed. "You mean co-habitate?" Ukyou nodded. "Are you sure you want me around all of the time?" Ai wasnít certain if it all wasnít some kind of dream. Things like that usually didnít work out so perfectly in her life.
"Look, Iíve already spent as many waking moments with you as I could when you were in your coma. Now that youíre up and about, I want to spend the rest of them with you. So, what do you think?"
In response, Ai reached forward, grabbed Ukyou by the collar, and hurled her form prone on the bed. She then wrapped her arms around her and gave Ukyou a passionate kiss. After almost a full minute, Ai broke it off, letting Ukyou gasp for air.
"I take it that tongue means yes?"
"Indeed," Ai said.
Ukyou found herself reluctant to get up, but knew she had to. There would be time for such things later. She raised herself to her feet and straightened up her outfit. "Is there anything else I can do for you?"
Ai gave her a lascivious grin. "You can sit on my face and tell me that you love me. Itíll be fun. Watch! I can touch my nose with my tongue." She demonstrated that particular talent for Ukyou by easily doing what she claimed.
It was a surprise to Ai that Ukyou proceeded to scowl at her, then turned and went directly for the door. Ai wondered if she hadnít gone too far, although Ukyou had been the one who had suggested they should live together.
"I was only joking," Ai protested, and it was mostly the truth. She wanted to be fully healed for the first time she and Ukyou would be together. She would settle for nothing less than peak condition, that way she could really rock Ukyouís world and show her the advantages of lovemaking between members of the same sex.
Ukyou continued towards the door, then stopped in front of it. She pulled out her giant spatula and wedged it into the door, jamming it shut. She then turned to Ai and began a slow walk towards her.
"Ukyou?" Ai asked, uncertain of what to make of the sudden turn of events.
Ukyou shushed her. "Iím going to show you something that Iíve been saving just for you. Think of it as a hint of things to come."
Ai watched in nervous anticipation as Ukyou brought one of her hands up to her uniform.
It was forty-five minutes later when a nurse went into the room to check up on Ai. As she entered the room, she saw Ai lying on her bed, looking deliriously happy. "Well now, you look like the cat that swallowed the proverbial canary."
"Oh, this cat ate something all right," Ai assured her. "But it wasnít of a poultry nature. It was closer to… seafood."
The nurse walked towards Ai and noticed something peculiar. "Whatís that odor?" she asked as she leaned closer to Ai. "It almost smells like fish."
"That would be my breath," Ai almost purred.
The nurse looked suspiciously at Ai. "Your girlfriend was just here, wasnít she?"
"Did the two of you have a good time?"
"It was great," Ai cooed. "We made a great leap in our relationship. She gave me something that she had been saving all of her life for someone special, and it turned out to be me. It tasted great!" She slowly ran her tongue slowly over her lips. "I ate and ate until my jaws nearly gave out."
"I see," the nurse said. "From the effect itís having on you, I think I wouldnít mind trying some of that myself."
Ai glared suspiciously at her. "So your tastes run that way as well?"
"They always have, though itís not usually the sort of thing I admit to strangers. Itís really none of their business."
"So," Ai fumed. "You want a… piece of what my beloved chef gave me? Something that was meant for me and me alone?"
"Yes. I must insist."
Ai felt angry with the pushy nurse. She had hurt other women for less than that, given how possessive she was and how much she hated to share. Still, she was in such a good mood, it wouldnít do to ruin it by giving the nurse a good thrashing.
"Very well." Ai handed the nurse the last remaining bite of the ĎKuonji Special Seafood Okonomiyakií Ukyou had made just for her.
Ukyou had said that, by family tradition, a Kuonji would only make that special dish for someone they truly loved. Ai just hoped Ukyou would forgive her for allowing the nurse to have the one tiny bite that had been left. Ai was fairly certain she could make it up to Ukyou. Oh yes. She had some ideas on that indeed.
Ai felt giddy as she and Ukyou removed her belongings from the back of the truck they had rented to move her things. At last, the day had come when she would move in with the woman she loved. The doctors had at last run their final tests on Ai, and the rehabilitation had come along as far as it could. That meant Ai could be released. She had already informed her parents of her intention of moving out. At first they were reluctant, but they eventually gave in. So on the same day that Ai was released, she and Ukyou packed up her belongings and went directly from her old house to Uk-Chanís. It was the most beautiful sight Ai had ever seen.
"Welcome to your new home," Ukyou said as she slipped an arm around Aiís waist.
Ai herself was delighted by the gesture. It seemed Ukyou was no longer shy about public displays of affection towards a member of the same sex. When Ai pointed out they might be ostracized for that sort of behavior, Ukyou said quite bluntly she no longer gave a damn about what others thought of her. Aiís opinion was the only one she cared about.
Almost as though she had read Aiís thoughts, Ukyou brought the blonde closer and kissed her on the lips. Also almost on cue, the ostracism began.
"You two sick and disgusting perverts! If you must engage in such immoral behavior, keep it hidden behind closed doors!"
Ai recognized the familiar French-accented Japanese that was spoken. "Well, well, well. If it isnít the French whore whoís jealous because she doesnít have someone as beautiful as Ukyou to love." She made certain to pull Ukyou even more closely for emphasis.
Crepe Suzette snorted at that. "I would rather be alone than be perverted. Besides, I did not come here to taunt you."
"Then why are you bothering us? We were trying to have a good time," Ukyou said.
"Ah. I have come here to ruin that. I have been too soft on you in recent months. Now that your lover is alive, ugly, and well, it is time to get back to business."
Ukyou restrained Ai from going after Suzette for the Ďuglyí remark.
Suzette sneered at the two of them. "I am sick and tired of you putting down the worldís most perfect form of music. Therefore I will start playing it continuously during your business hours once again. I made this song especially for you." She snapped her fingers. From out of her own bistro, loud Jazz music began to issue forth, the speakers clearly directed toward Uk-Chanís.
Ukyou began to recoil in horror at the sounds. Ai started to sway to the music, then stopped. It would probably not be a good time to mention to Ukyou that she rather liked Jazz. Maybe not mentioning that at all would be for the best.
"Why canít you just let it go?" Ukyou growled, realizing that the lyrics ĎOkonomiyaki tastes really rottení were also in the song. And the day has started out so nicely too.
Suzette laughed. "Because I will never forgive you for trying to win my heart and make me into a pervert, not that taking this trollop," she indicated Ai, "on the rebound after I rejected your advances is not punishment enough."
Ukyou held Ai back once again. After calming her down enough that she didnít think Ai would attack, Ukyou released her, then turned to go back to her restaurant. "Todayís too good for you to ruin it, Suzette. Nice try though."
Suzette gave her a defeated look. "I see. So my opportunity to make you miserable has passed for today. It is too bad. Iíll come up with something better next time." She turned to go, but paused a moment to look back. "If only some stranger had not bailed you out of your mortgage when you were in trouble, then I would have been rid of you."
"Heh. Thatís right. And I still havenít forgiven you for that stupid pastry you left behind. You rotten…" Ukyou paused then, scratching her head in confusion. She couldnít remember mentioning the fact the payment was anonymous to Suzette. "Whatís that supposed to mean?"
Suzette smiled and entered her own restaurant, leaving Ukyou to simmer. The blonde must have dug out the information from the bank. Right. That made sense. It was all just another mind game the French chef was pulling. One that served to put Ukyou in a fouler mood.
"Iíll buy you a pair of earplugs, dear." Ai said as she led the now miserable Ukyou, who continued covering her ears, into the store. Ai took a second to carefully look Ukyou over. She had been so happy before, and now to have that joy all but crushed made Ai feel so cheated. Still, there was one way the situation might be salvaged. "I know something that will cheer you up."
"What?" Ukyou asked, completely miserable.
Ai began to tell her what she could do, in vivid detail.
Ukyou blushed. "I donít think Iím that flexible!"
"Weíll find out, wonít we?" Ai led Ukyou upstairs to the bedroom, intent on cheering up the love of her life.
Over two hours later, the cheering was still going on.
Author's notes: Thanks to Bloodblade for the Azusa scene.
As always, special thanks to:
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